The French countryside has an appeal that is almost primordial in nature: beautiful land, temperate weather and fertile soil - what more could a society want? The subject of both envy and inspiration, it's been fought over, divvied up, bequeathed, painted and written about for centuries. But if life for French farmers has never been the paradise that the landscape seems to promise, the country's beauty and lore still casts a powerful spell - from Provence to Britanny, people continue to fall in love with la campagne.
Of course you can always fall for rural France in the traditional way - through the prism of hotels, restaurants and the windows of a car or TGV - but the options for visiting the countryside are so diverse it's a shame not to add a twist of authenticity to a trip. And what better way to get to know a place then through its people?
Although French farmers in some regions have developed a reputation for being wary of outsiders, the divide is easier to breach than imagined. The fact is, many farmers want people to come - they've even gone so far as to develop their own bed and breakfast network, known as L'Accueil Paysan. Participants in the system generally rent out spare rooms - or, in some cases, land for camping - and, in addition to breakfast, might also offer a family dinner.
But the network is less about simple tourism than it is about education. As Véronique Daniel, the owner of a Burgundy farm, said, 'I joined the Accueil Paysan four years ago because I wanted to host people, but in a way that corresponds with my own beliefs and professional practices. The Accueil Paysan requires that you share your knowledge and time with visitors, and that you use products from the nearby farms in the meals that you serve. It is a way of defending local agriculture, of resisting agribusiness.’
For this reason, spending a few nights on a farm in the Accueil Paysan network goes beyond simply relaxing; it's also engaging. And while the majority of visitors are from cities, Ms Daniel said, many want 'to reconnect with their own agricultural roots'.
For children too, the Accueil Paysan can be a wonderful experience. It taps directly into their inherent fascination with the natural world, if only because of the standard array of farm animals: horses, donkeys, sheep, geese and that perennial favourite, the family dog, which keep little hearts thrilled. And many farms, such as Ms Daniel's, also host activities such as horse riding.
Besides providing a change of scenery and lifestyle, the Accueil Paysan network gets you up close and personal with France's raison d'être: food. Farmers might produce homemade cassoulet or jam, organic produce and fruit, wine, or cheese. All the delicacies of French cuisine have their origins in the countryside, and participants are just waiting to introduce you to the local specialties. You won't go home empty handed.